Student newspaper denied access to details of private meeting

MICHIGAN — A state court of appeals has rejected an appeal from the Oakland Post, Oakland University’s student paper, to force university officials to reveal details from a private meeting between members of the board of trustees and lobbyists.

“It’s frustrating,” said Post adviser Holly Gilbert. “We’re kind of scratching our heads, wondering what the courts are thinking.”

In an opinion issued Aug. 30, the appellate panel based its findings on a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision, Federated Publications, Inc. v. Michigan State University Bd of Trustees.

That case, which stemmed from Michigan State University’s refusal to furnish records from a private presidential search, established state precedent allowing higher education governing bodies more latitude in making decisions without public access if such access would “unconstitutionally infringe the governing board’s power to supervise the institution.”

Because public universities have a special status under the state constitution, the court said they could not be subject to some provisions of the state freedom of information laws.

The appeals court found parallels between the two cases in dismissing the appeal.

“In Federated Publications, the presidential selection committee meetings were not ‘formal’ board meetings,” according to the decision. “Similarly, here, plaintiff does not argue that the defendant’s meeting with its lobbyist firm was a ‘formal’ session. Instead, because the meeting was informal, the Legislature is constitutionally precluded from requiring compliance with [the Open Meetings Act].”

Gilbert said that the university does not foster press freedoms on campus.

“The paper can’t serve its function if it can’t have access to meetings and financial information,” she said. “Press freedom doesn’t seem to be very high on this administration’s agenda.”

But director of media relations Ted Montgomery said the university is committed to open access.

“The only thing I would say is to reiterate that the Oakland University board of trustees has always and will continue to conduct the business of the university in open meetings,” Montgomery said.

Representatives from the Post filed suit in Oakland Circuit Court in November 2003 to protest a closed-door meeting held between members of the board of trustees and lobbyists to discuss potential fundraising options in the wake of government spending cuts.

Newspaper staff said they believed access to the meeting was mandated under the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

After the court found in favor of the school on Oct. 30, 2003, the editors of the Post appealed.

Gilbert said that the Post is discussing its options, but had not reached a decision whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

by Kyle McCarthy


  • The Oakland Post v. Oakland University Board of Trustees, No.252391 (Oakland Circuit Court LC No. 03-048542-CZ, August 30, 2005)

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